Patent Your Idea

We've all heard horror stories about tinkerers who came up with a million-dollar brainstorm, only to have their idea stolen. Here's how to patent your idea so you can keep that from happening to you!

| September/October 1981

  • 071 patent your idea - Sergej Khackimullin - Fotolia
    A big idea may lead to a big payoff, but first you need to patent your idea.

  • 071 patent your idea - Sergej Khackimullin - Fotolia

There are several ways to protect a potentially profitable invention. The first and easily the least expensive is simple: just don't tell anyone about it. Such "trade secrets" have been kept by some businesses for hundreds of years ...but their usefulness is limited for the most part to inventions that require specific, measured ingredients coupled with a special process by which those components are rendered into a usable product.

Copyrighting, another method of protecting your work, also has its limitations. After all, it's not possible to copyright an idea ...only the written words, melodies, pictures, or other forms through which the idea is expressed. Such protection is also given for a limited period of time, and involves payment of a fee. (Free information and forms are available from the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress)

A third, but usually both time-consuming and expensive, way of guarding your brainchild against theft is by patent. The Inventor Resources page at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office hosts a number of documents that explain what patents are and how to patent your idea. 

In short, a patent is a grant to an inventor, given by the United States, which allows him or her—for a limited time—to exclude others from making, using, or selling the patent-holder's product in this country. The actual grant is a printed document in which the invention is fully described and the rights of the inventor are defined. Once a person gets a patent, he or she has the opportunity to profit by making, using, or selling the invention in a protected market or by charging other people for that privilege.

There are two main types of patents. The first, which is given for "new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter or plants," lasts for 17 years from the time that it's granted. The second sort is granted for "new, original, and ornamental designs" (those that affect the shape of an item without reference to its inner mechanism or to the process by which the item was made), and can run for 3 1/2, 7, or 14 years, the time being decided by the inventor.

However, it may take several years and thousands of dollars just to obtain a patent ...and not every good invention is patentable or even worth patenting. Most, in fact, aren't, either because somebody has already patented a similar or identical design, or because the invention cannot be successfully commercialized. Since the point of patenting is to allow the originator of an invention to get a financial return on it, the potential profits must outstrip the considerable costs involved if a patent is to represent a worthwhile "investment."


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